Report from Chris Smith.
THE red squirrel now seems doomed to inevitable extinction in
mainland England and southern Scotland, wildlife experts warned today.
An investigation into the changing fortunes of Britain's mammals reveals that circumstances "continue to worsen" for the red squirrel despite every effort being made to save the species threatened by an invasion of grey squirrels and outbreaks of parapox virus.
Authors of the report, Professor David Macdonald and Dr Fran Tattersall, of the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit at Oxford University, two of the UK's most eminent mammalogists, were asked by the Mammals Trust UK to look at the current state of the UK's native species.
The key findings show that the Scottish wildcat has interbred so extensively with the domestic cat that they are now critically endangered.
The report says it is essential that the Government re-evaluate conservation measures and the legal protection afforded to the wildcat if it is to be restored to Scotland.
Currently, the report describes the Scottish wildcat as "probably on the brink of extinction".
In the past, American mink have been held responsible for the fall in water vole numbers, but new analysis suggests that it has simply speeded up a historical decline resulting from competition with livestock.
A number of reedbed sites have been assigned as National key Sites for water voles, after research suggesting that these provide greater protection from predators than main water channels.
Otters are now found to have returned to many parts of the UK, following their dramatic decline last century, as a result of extensive work by a number of organisations.
American mink numbers have simultaneously decreased and this is thought to be related to the revival of otter populations, as these influence the foraging behaviour and, therefore, diet of the mink.
The report also warns that the culling of badger populations to prevent the spread of bovine TB may not be effective.
Recent research showed that there was a 27% increase in the number of cases in reactive culling areas compared with related survey-only areas where no culling took place.
The report says highly intensive agriculture using herbicide tolerant GM crops may be very damaging to biodiversity.
And 2003 saw the publication of the results of the farm scale evaluations of three herbicide tolerant GM crops, maize, beet and spring oilseed rape.
It found that there were more insects in and around the conventional beet and rape crops, as well as more weeds and weed seeds. In the case of GM maize crops, where a different type of herbicide was used later in the year, there were found to be more weeds, but not more insects, around the GM crops.
Much of UK wildlife is dependent on invertebrates for food including many mammals, such as wood mice, bats and hedgehogs.
Caution and further research is recommended before the widespread introduction of GM crops.
Co author of the report Professor Macdonald said "This has been an extraordinary year for mammal conservation, with advances for creatures as varied as water voles, otters and bats.
"However, there are also still huge problems ahead, such as the fate of the red squirrel and Scottish wildcat.
"It is heartening to see that the public is becoming more and more enthusiastic and all the more so due to the activities of the Mammals Trust UK.
Dr Valerie Keeble, Chief Executive of Mammals Trust UK added: "Professor Macdonald and Dr Tattersall's report provides us with an excellent insight into the fate of our native mammals as it currently stands.
"Mammals Trust UK believes that the report will be a very useful took in the strategic planning of future conservation work."
© The Manchester News, 26 th April 2004
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